BOOK REVIEW / A dish best eaten cold: 'Mothers and Other Lovers - Joanna Briscoe: Phoenix, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ANYONE WHO relishes the revenges of time sees a delicious irony in the emergence of fiction describing life as a hippie's child. The lives and loves of adults affected by the alternative society has been amply chronicled by Kingsley Amis, Alison Lurie, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge - but its legacy to its children, who could only rebel by turning to conventional achievement, is a genuinely novel subject.

Like Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky, Joanna Briscoe's first novel, Mothers and Other Lovers, describes the misadventures of an alternative family. The bean-eating, Aga-cookinq, Guardian- reading Strachans live on Dartmoor. . Their successful photographic business makes Tim and Paula prey for spongers, gurus and false friends; their conventional unconventionality makes their children envied and derided.

'Is it intolerant not to want to smell of patchouli and speak like I've been knocked on the head?' Eleanor their clever, spiky teenage daughter, demands. She attends the local comprehensive, and is a model student, but Paula cares only for Rolf, Eleanor's stupid younger brother, who goes to Dartington Hall and is given a Gibson. Eleanor's hatred of her mother, while intellectually well-founded and openly expressed, is that of a thwarted lover. She has sex with her boyfriend, dances on the kitchen table, and tries to humiliate Paula - yet achieves little until she meets her mother's friend Selma.

Glamorous, flattering, coldly manipulative, Selma has written three books and comes from the London Eleanor craves. Paula, racked by adulterous passion for her former guru, watches docilely while Selma gives Eleanor clothes, compliments and the wise advice to read Cold Comfort Farm. Suffocating femininity reaches its climax when Selma finally seduces her.

This powerful, original and uncomfortable novel began as a short story in The Virago Book of Revenge. It gives admirable attention to plot, pace and psychology. Vivid with acrimony, the novel is unusual in that it allows us to see what the mother, as well as the daughter, is feeling. Silly, weak and ill-educated, Paula is pitifully defenceless against her daughter's barbs. We believe and care that they become reconciled. All of this deserves the Betty Trask prize it won.

What does not is the style of Mothers and Other Lovers. For a first novel to open with two paragraphs which should have been struck out argues a lack of editing. Too many nature passages, sex- scenes and fragments of dialogue appear to have been transcribed from an adolescent's diary. Briscoe has the raw material, and ambition, to promise a real future in fiction, but the art of the novel demands irony, elegance and invention. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold: first, however, this book should have been cooked.

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